Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Snow’

‘Snow’ by Orhan Pamuk; Faber and Faber, 2005. 440pp

Reviewed by Michael Willoughby | 10 May 2005

In Greece, the loved ones of sick people hang votive offerings at the altars of saints in the belief that it will help the sick person’s recovery. These Tamata are rectangular pieces of metal with miniature body parts attached to them. Orthodox churches are festooned with the images of sick feet, kidneys, ears and eyes. Tamata have been found at ancient grave sites of 3,000 years ago.

It is impossible to know a culture from the outside. Because each lives by different rules, the danger is that a foreign land will appear absurd since its people follow different rituals, pay deference to different gods and have other mores from us. Since we do not see the wellspring of tradition from which they rise, the behaviour of the foreigner can seem quaint or undignified. Accusations of backwardness or childishness issue forth with missions of salvation on their heels.

What sometimes has the power to restore the foreigner’s faith in the Other’s dignity is, of course, art. Whether intended or not, the effect of Paul Simon using the Sowetan Black Mombasa band on his Graceland album was to draw attention to the humanity of suffering black South Africa at a key moment in the country’s history. Hawksmoor and his intellectual cohorts were at such pains to claim the great ancient structures, the Hagia Sophia and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, for the Western tradition because they spoke of and embodied dignity.

With hypnotic repetition yet admirable economy, Orhan Pamuk crosses and recrosses these borders of cultural difference, representing first one side’s simplistic view of the Other, demonstrating the dignity and complexity beneath, then repeating the process in reversal. At one point, the fundamentalist Blue (who incidentally exhibits strangely Western characteristics in his debonair behaviour), asks ‘is the beauty of the Shehname [a Persian epic which he believes has fallen out of currency] worth killing for?’ What, I think he is asking, is the true, oppositional, value of a differentiated cultural as a facet of that culture’s dignity? How much was St Paul’s Cathedral worth to the British during the Blitz?

Pamuk is able to engage in this examination (among so many other things) because he is both of the East and of the West. Ka, Pamuk’s hero, is the inverse. He belongs in neither place. The novel is set in a border town and its form is impossible to categorise. Is it primarily a realist novel in the manner of Stendhal or Turgenev, or does it borrow more from magic realism? Is it a political novel, a thriller, a farce? Of course it is both, yet does not veer far enough in either direction to commit. Certainly the repeated repetitions to Ka’s overcoat draws parallels to Gogol who concocted the most serious yet literary political satire, which certainly bear examination. The characters in Snow hover somewhere between real people and symbols, the book somewhere between fable and reportage.

An epigram from Stendhal at the front of the novel reads: “Politics in a literary work are like a gun-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair, though one impossible to ignore.”

Opening the book, we perhaps expected a politicised novel which is simply educative about the tribulations of peoples under oppression. Instead we are presented with something completely other – a book in which art and politics are interchangeable. Like a militaristic Tempest, the uses and abuses of art and even their indistinguishableness from each other form one of the strongest themes of the book. The coup, for example, is a coup de theatre.

The anti-hero, at various times mediator, double agent, apologist and propagandist, a poet. Art – words, theatre, epic – would appear to have been corrupted by politics. But in fact Pamuk has merely shifted the boundaries a little to show that politicians and dictators have always relied upon these things to seize power. And is art ever free of politics anyway? Not, Pamuk suggests, if other, cultures possess different, contradictory ways of viewing the world. Nothing is neutral. Ka, on the other hand, claims that he would like to flee to the margins as all poets do. But in fact he ends up at the centre of things because he is the symbol of the logos and of myth. In the process of his political dealings more than one of the poems that he is ‘channelling’ from his muse become blocked.

It is not just creativity that comes to grief in this border post under the extraordinary conditions imposed by this unreal, snowbound coup, but truth, which here becomes creatively stretched as the newspaper proprietor writes the news before it happens.

There are many more aspects of Pamuk’s novel which are extraordinary. There are the variations on the theme of snow, which takes on so many symbolic attributes that it is worthy of a poem by Donne. Snow, to recount, represents God, is the book’s title, the name of the hero (snow is Kar in Turkish), and is the title of the hero’s book of poems. It is also the unreality under which the coup is allowed to happen since the roads (normality, the external) are blocked.

There is an extremely interesting investigation of the difficulty (or, that word again, impossibility) of being a woman in either a religious or secular culture and an examination of what the headscarf – which is always already a symbol – means to women. There is an exploration of happiness – of its always being elsewhere (Germany) and of its only being possible when evanescent (sic transit gloria mundi).

There is the constant doubling and twinning of characters who are linked and contrasted in different ways – Orhan and Ka (literary), the sisters (blood), Fazil and his blood brother (religion). There is the weaving in of the novelistic tradition from Kafka to Borges which always escapes mere novelty.

But I come back again to the importance in the novel of art of its standing alone and – again – the impossibility it remaining separated from politics lest it vanish Ka’s notebook of poems – the vanished yet beating heart of this extraordinary book. There are no simple answers in Snow, nor in life. Little of beauty survives, but what does remain must bear the weight of, as another character says, equating poverty – and Otherness – with stupidity.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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